Associate Connecticut Critic
In the past two years, I have been sent by On Stage to write about well over 25 shows – that’s not mentioning the countless plays I’ve seen, read or participated in – and yet “The Prisoner” is probably the hardest one to review. That’s because, unlike those other 25+ shows, “The Prisoner” doesn’t follow the guidelines of modern, Western theater. I understand how that kind of theater-making works from Shakespeare to Shaw to Sondheim. I know the rules and the conventions behind them. I can evaluate how they complement or break those traditions. But “The Prisoner,” making its US debut at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a turn away from that style of performance. It has moments of medieval mystery plays and parts reminiscent of “Caucasian Chalk Circle.” There are elements of traditional Indian or African storytelling and others that feel like Greek tragedy. That is to say, it’s a work that firmly belongs to director Peter Brook. The Tony Award-winning director, who wrote and directed “The Prisoner” along with Marie-Hélène Estienne, has had an incredibly influential career. It’s no surprise that his bio has entries for Brecht and an adaptation of the Sanskrit epic “Mahābhārata.” At age 93, it’s clear that Brook’s instinct for staging engaging, inventive theater hasn’t dulled or that he hasn’t run of things to talk about.
What exactly he’s trying to articulate, though, I’m not so sure. “The Prisoner” is a simple, parable-like story told on a stark, bare stage. The program credits David Viola for “set elements,” which basically amounts to a cut-down tree trunk and a floor littered with sticks, twigs, hay and wood shavings. (I hope stage management has invested in enough tweezers to extract three weeks’ worth of splinters). The brick back wall and lighting elements are on full display. Alice Francois’ vaguely modern costumes – all earth tones – are similarly unadorned. The settings is, well, vague. We’re somewhere in Southern Asia or maybe Africa. Or maybe it exists nowhere, in that mythical land of metaphor where Didi and Gogo once waited.
This sparseness and ambiguity allows us to focus purely on the story being presented and, more importantly, the ways it’s being told. The tale involves Mavuso (Hiran Abeysekera), a young man who kills his father in a blind rage after catching his sister (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) in bed with their father. After being crippled by his uncle Ezekiel (Herve Goffings), he’s sent to serve out the rest of his punishment in an unusual way. He is to live outside the prison. He cannot leave or go inside. He must wait and atone. He does so for years and is occasionally visited by a guard (Omar Silva) and a European traveler (Hayley Carmichael), who adds unnecessary narration at the beginning and end.
The joy of “The Prisoner” lies not in the philosophizing on the meaning of freedom and penitence, but in the way Brook and Estienne use little moments to garner great impact. A scene where Mavuso catches a rat for dinner is both charming and a perfectly calibrated distillation of the play’s themes – loneliness, imprisonment, intimacy, death – in only a few minutes. It’s also a masterclass in pantomime from Abeysekera. Amidst the highly theatrical and starkly imagined tableau, Mavuso lights a real fire which crackles with life and menace in a brilliant piece of juxtaposition. In other scenes, the modest production elements are used expertly. In one, Philippe Vialatte’s utilitarian lighting rises and falls as we watch Mavuso sleep away his punishment. In another, a lush forest is vividly created by turning the lights green while we hear a symphony of animal sounds (all, likely, made by human voices). A scene where a building is demolished is conveyed with an actor’s meaningful gaze and sound effects so lifelike that you can almost see the clouds of debris.
“The Prisoner’s” slow, relaxed pace also allows us to take notice of minutia that would normally be overlooked in a more traditional work: the pattern of sticks on the floor, the tempo of one actor’s breath, the minuscule changes in facial expression. In one memorable moment, Mavuso looks out at the prison in front of him, one that appears to him at the back of the auditorium. His steely eyes roaming the audience, performing a lengthy-yet-powerful wordless monologue. Are we the prison? And, going a step further, is the audience the jailor for the actor? Do we imprison the performers on stage, making them dance until we’re tired? Or is the dance the actual freedom.
“The Prisoner” asks many such interesting questions, but doesn’t answer nearly enough of them. I attended the play with two friends and on the way home we all had wildly different theories on the play’s thesis. One suspected it was an allegory to Buddha, waiting under the Bodhi tree for enlightenment. Another noticed the Oedipal aspect. I somehow missed a pivotal plot point regarding the crime (Goffings gives a dignified, wonderful performance in a deep French accent that is sometimes hard to decipher) and wondered if this was a spin on Job. It is all of those things and none of them.
I include that because it indicates that “The Prisoner” is too much of a Rorschach. The themes Brook and Estienne want to explore are clear, but the reason for exploring them are too muddy and hazy. What is the significance of the incest, of the traveler, of the dirty joke about a fish? I can’t say. The inability to answer those questions means that, at least for me, “The Prisoner” was a succession of beautiful and well-crafted images and fascinating ideas that didn’t resonate enough emotionally or intellectually.
Midway through, the title character looks at his outdoor cell and says, “I should leave this place. I should rush to the prison and demand to be let in. There I would feel the punishment I deserve. Here I don’t feel it. Here I feel nothing.” The biggest problem with “The Prisoner,” is that, ultimately, I didn’t feel quite enough either.
“The Prisoner” runs until November 17 at the Yale Repertory Theatre. It features text and stage direction by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. The production team includes Philippe Vialatte (lighting), David Violi (set elements), Alice Francois (costume assistant) and William Neuman (technical director). The cast includes Hiran Abeysekera, Hayley Carmichael, Herve Goffings, Omar Silva & Kalieaswari Srinivasan.